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John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature.

Deborah E. Harkness, John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xiii + 252 pp. ISBN: O-521-62228-X.

That John Dee, a major intellectual figure in sixteenth-century England, held conversations with angels and kept elaborate records of such conversations has been known at least since 1659, when Meric Casaubon published a large volume of Dee's "angel diaries." What to make of the diaries, however -- or of the conversations themselves -- has not been easy. Casaubon had no doubts about the authenticity of the conversations, though he was certain that the "angels," despite Dee's belief in their goodness, were actually demons. In more recent years, when neither angels nor demons are likely to inhabit the mental world of the scholar, the tendency has been to ignore this part of Dee's life or to assume that Dee was the victim of a deceitful if clever "skryer" named Edward Kelly. Now, Deborah E. Harkness, in a meticulously researched and persuasively written study, has moved the angel conversations into the center of Dee's life, not only tying them to his major intellectual work and writings but also placing them ce ntrally in the well-known trajectory from his early popularity and influence as adviser to kings and queens to later ostracism and poverty.

Dee consulted angels from sometime in the 1560s (99 n.2) until 1607. His diaries (which date primarily from the 1580s show that the angels were called into a crystal stone called a "showstone;" they were then asked searching questions "about the way the world worked, [and about] how and when God would reorder it according to a divine plan" (40). Each session was recorded by Dee, who gave the location, the cast of characters (the name of the skryer, the angel, other participants, and Dee himself), and a record of the conversation set out in dialogue form. These records, "scattered through several manuscript collections in the Bodleian and British Libraries," offer, writes Harkness, "fragmentary remnants of a vast intellectual undertaking" (1-2).

Harkness's study is distinguished by its thesis that the angel conversations were, in fact, part of Dee's "intellectual undertaking." Harkness draws on the "angel diaries" themselves, on Dee's published writings (especially the Propaedeumata aphoristica, the Monas hieroglyphica, and Dee's "Mathematical Preface"), and on his huge library holdings and on marginalia in books known to be his. She sets this wealth of material within the contexts of biblical and cabalistic writings, medieval and early modern optics and alchemy, and Reformation eschatology, and from this builds her case that the angel conversations are not aberrations but "the culmination of [Dee's] earlier efforts to create a universal science capable of deciphering the Book of Nature" (116) Dee, having exhausted every known means of such deciphering (observation, mathematics, hieroglyphics), turned to "angelic 'schoolmasters'," who "were an answer to his intellectual crisis of confidence" (116).

The rewards of Harkness's book are many. Among them: her vivid placing of the angel conversations within the world of Rudolphine Prague (where King Stephen of Poland and Count Laski took part in the questioning of the angels, where papal representatives wrote anxiously about the impropriety of angels appearing to a married man, and where Rudolph stole Dee's skryer because of Kelly's expertise in matters alchemical); her discovery of the long-lost, if ultimately disappointing, Book of Soyga; her explanations of the "divine language," of "Adam's true names," and of "the cabala of nature," all so laboriously taught Dee by the angels, but hitherto dismissed "as a hodgepodge of unutterable sounds and a strange assortment of names and phrases" (182).

Although Harkness makes her case that Dee's angel conversations were part of his "coming to terms with the problems of practicing natural philosophy in a world that he believed was coming to an end" (59), I am not completely persuaded by her claims about the dominance of apocalyptic fears in Reformation culture. And I would have welcomed a bit of speculation about the "reality" of the angels. While she acknowledges that "the modern mind [is] far removed from a worldview where celestial hierarchies of angels mediate between humanity and divinity," she writes that the "most pressing question for most modern scholars remains that of Dee's intentions in the angel conversations" (46). For this particular modern scholar, a more pressing question is "what was happening around that showstone when Dee thought he was talking with angels?"
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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